The American Ramen Variations
The Japanese tonkotsu ramen chain Tonchin tries something a little different with its second New York location, while preparing an LA expansion.
Anan Sugeno’s family opened the first Tonchin restaurant in Japan in 1992, which grew into dozens of locations across Japan and Asia. He brought Tonchin to New York in 2017, and this year opened a second location in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, highlighting the Japanese original’s specialty of tonkotsu ramen as well as non-alcoholic cocktails and a natural wines list.
Had you been thinking of expanding before the pandemic?
Yeah, before the pandemic, we were looking for a good space in the Brooklyn area, but we couldn’t find anything. Then the pandemic happened, and a lot of spaces opened up.
Did the wider spread of options change where you were looking to go?
I really wanted to open a place in Williamsburg, and my real estate broker told me about this location. It used to be the breakfast place Egg, which shut down during the pandemic.
Was it the same type of place you were originally considering? Any worries about moving ahead with a new business, given the pandemic?
I signed the lease during the pandemic actually, and then I worried—was this too risky? Was the space too big? It was a challenge.
You tested out the new concept with a pop-up first though right?
A couple of months after the city was in lockdown in March 2020, and we couldn’t do anything, we were finally just like—let’s do something. We started a delivery and takeout service in the Midtown kitchen. But for a whole day we might just get ten orders. So then we thought we should try something in different neighborhoods, where people live. We got a temporary space for three months at a bar that had closed, so we used that while I paid their rent. That’s where we did the pop-up.
And the pop-up did well?
Yeah, it was really fun to meet new people in a new neighborhood.
What made you choose to try something else in Brooklyn, rather than just copying the Midtown menu?
I didn’t want to just cover the same ground when expanding. And especially in New York City, when you have two or three locations, the people working there want to add their own spice to each location. That’s why we changed the menu to a different concept.
How is that Midtown location doing anyway?
Surprisingly, the sales in Midtown are actually better than before the pandemic.
That is surprising. Who’s coming in there these days?
It’s the tourists around the 36th Street and the Empire State Building. So many tourists!
You think you’re getting more tourists now than before the pandemic?
I guess? Or maybe it’s the same number of tourists, and more people searching up “good ramen near me” and finding us. And also, there are so many office workers. They came back to Midtown.
Tonchin has the original locations outside the United States, and of course the Midtown location is already a different version of the Japanese brand. But are you planning to open more locations in New York?
I’m focusing on making it successful in Brooklyn first. It’s only been open like four months.
Anything different or surprising about the new place?
It’s been great having all these Williamsburg neighborhood people coming to try our food. I had to be really patient with growing the business when we opened the first one in Midtown five years ago, but Williamsburg has been much different sales-wise and covers-wise.
What are your plans for the winter, besides keeping an eye on Brooklyn?
We’re going to open a new location in LA very soon, in West Hollywood, Larchmont Village. It’s going to be a similar concept to our Midtown location. That should open around the end of November or beginning of December.
Given the variations in the Williamsburg operation—the menu, the wine and drinks selection, et cetera—what was it like setting it up with staff, versus when you opened in Midtown?
When we opened the first location in New York, we brought in everyone from Japan, and we did what we could do. But this time, now that I live in New York, I’ve made so many good friends and met so many good people in this industry. We were able to hire a much stronger team than before. We have a great chef, sommelier, and wine director, which let us create a concept for a Japanese-New American restaurant. But even now it’s really hard to find new staff.
Are you are you fully staffed now, or are you still hiring?
Oh, we’re always short-staffed. We’re always, always hiring.